Still telling sol­diers’ sto­ries

In Ernie Pyle’s words, mu­seum finds in­spi­ra­tion for sanc­ti­fy­ing sac­ri­fices

Los Angeles Times - - NEWS - With Steve Padilla steve.padilla@latimes.com

‘Here in a jum­bled row for mile on mile are sol­diers’ packs. “Here are socks and shoe pol­ish, sewing kits, di­aries, Bi­bles and hand grenades.... Here are tooth­brushes and ra­zors, and snap­shots of fam­i­lies back home star­ing up at you from the sand.”

The words ap­peared in Amer­i­can news­pa­pers on June 17, 1944, con­tained in the last of three re­ports war cor­re­spon­dent Ernie Pyle filed de­pict­ing the af­ter­math of D-day.

In his sig­na­ture style, de­tailed and de­cep­tively sim­ple, Pyle de­scribed the “hu­man lit­ter” that ex­tended in “a thin lit­tle line, like a high-wa­ter mark” along the beaches of Nor­mandy af­ter the June 6 land­ing.

Writ­ing pa­per and air mail en­velopes con­sti­tuted the most com­mon de­bris, af­ter cig­a­rettes.

“The boys had in­tended to do a lot of writ­ing in France. Letters that would have filled those blank, aban­doned pages.”

You see these words, and many oth­ers by Pyle, as you read, watch and some­times weep while tour­ing the “Road to Ber­lin” gal­leries at the Na­tional WWII Mu­seum here in New Or­leans.

The mu­seum dis­plays all man­ner of ar­ti­facts — maps and tele­grams, ri­fles and dog tags — and the hard­ware of war, in­clud­ing a B-29 bomber and P-51 Mus­tang fighter. There are photos, films and doc­u­men­taries; with a click you can play videos of vet­er­ans re­count­ing the war.

There are Pyle ar­ti­facts too, copies of two of his books, “Brave Men” and “Here Is Your War,” and a Zippo lighter Pyle gave to a friend who helped him an­swer fan mail. “For Reed Switzer in grate­ful­ness for ev­ery­thing you’ve done for me,” he wrote. “Ernie Pyle. Sept. 7, 1944. Lon­don.”

He’s not the fo­cus of the ex­hibits, but his pres­ence, heart­felt and melan­choly, seems ev­ery­where here.

His de­scrip­tion of lit­ter fol­low­ing D-day, that “long thin line of an­guish,” inspired one of the mu­seum’s most mov­ing dis­plays. Next to ex­cerpts from that dis­patch stands a rec­tan­gu­lar glass box lined with a few inches of gray sand.

There are no high-tech graph­ics, just the sand stud­ded with ob­jects of the kind Pyle recorded — among them two hel­mets, packs of Old Gold and Lucky Strike cig­a­rettes, a safety ra­zor, Vase­line, a bar of soap.

“We added that rel­a­tively late,” said Owen Glen­den­ing, the mu­seum’s as­so­ciate vice pres­i­dent of ed­u­ca­tion and ac­cess.

At a staff meet­ing, he re­called, some­one men­tioned that they had buck­ets of sand brought back from Nor­mandy. Could the sand be used in some way?

Then some­one re­mem­bered Pyle’s June 17 col­umn.

You come across the glass box af­ter view­ing dra­matic dis­plays about the in­va­sion. Mu­seum staff won­dered, af­ter de­sign­ing such har­row­ing ex­hibits, “how we were go­ing to mark, to sanc­tify, the sac­ri­fice of the day,” Glen­den­ing said.

They found their an­swer in Pyle’s words.

Pyle had re­ported on the North African and Ital­ian cam­paigns when he pre­pared to cover the Al­lied in­va­sion of France.

Rick Atkin­son, in his mas­ter­ful history, “The Guns at Last Light,” tal­lies Pyle’s gear: “His kit bag car­ried 11 liquor bot­tles, as­sorted good luck trin­kets, a Rem­ing­ton por­ta­ble and no­tice of the Pulitzer Prize he had won a month ear­lier for bril­liant re­port­ing in the Mediter­ranean.”

Atkin­son also shows how the war shat­tered Pyle, quot­ing a let­ter he wrote to a friend: “In­stead of grow­ing stronger and hard as good vet­er­ans do, I’ve be­come weaker and more fright­ened.... I don’t sleep well, and have half-awake hideous dreams about the war.”

He was 45 but his thin face, nar­row shoul­ders and bald­ing pate made him look old enough to be the grand­fa­ther of the GIs he wrote about.

Telling a friend that “the hurt has fi­nally be­come too great,” he left Europe for home in Septem­ber 1944.

But he still had sto­ries to write and af­ter a brief rest, headed to the Pa­cific.

That spring, the front page of the Los An­ge­les Times car­ried a story filed by As­so­ci­ated Press writer Grant Mac­Don­ald from Ok­i­nawa, dated April 18, 1945. It be­gan: “Ernie Pyle, war cor­re­spon­dent beloved by his co-work­ers, GIs and gen­er­als alike, was killed by a Ja­panese ma­chine-gun bullet through his left tem­ple this morn­ing.”

Lt. Col. Joseph B. Coolidge, who was with Pyle when he was hit, said that en­listed men had “lost their best friend.”

Pyle had told their story un­flinch­ingly and with com­pas­sion. Else­where at the mu­seum, another line by Pyle ap­pears mounted on a wall: “Dead men have been com­ing down the moun­tain all evening, lashed on to the backs of mules.”

The line comes from “The Death of Capt. Waskow,” the heart­break­ing ac­count of men see­ing the body of Capt. Henry T. Waskow.

“The first man squat­ted down, and he reached down and took the dead hand, and he sat there for a full five min­utes, hold­ing the dead hand in his own and look­ing in­tently into the dead face, and he never ut­tered a sound all the time he sat there.

“And fi­nally he put the hand down, and then reached up and gen­tly straight­ened the points of the cap­tain’s shirt col­lar, and then he sort of re­ar­ranged the tat­tered edges of his uni­form around the wound. And then he got up and walked away down the road into the moon­light, all alone.”

When you walk through the mu­seum and read the line about the mules bring­ing bod­ies down the moun­tain, and the line about the blank writ­ing pa­per, and the line about ra­zors in the sand, it hits you.

Seventy years af­ter his death, Ernie Pyle is still at work, still telling the sto­ries of sol­diers.

As­so­ci­ated Press

WAR COR­RE­SPON­DENT Ernie Pyle talks with Marines in 1945. The “Road to Ber­lin” gal­leries at the Na­tional WWII Mu­seum in New Or­leans fea­ture his work.

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